Let’s face it, this year has been...something. COVID has affected nearly every aspect of life and the typical rhythms in the sports world have been awkwardly disjointed. The past 365 days have, in many ways, felt like dog years for hockey fans who endured a season suspended and a new season delayed, especially as the year has brought additional struggles to many of us.
Thinking about events in January, when things were blissfully pandemic-free and the Predators were holding onto hope for a playoff run, feels fuzzy and exhausting. Despite its challenges, 2020 had some pretty amazing highs for Predators fans, along with those more than enough painful lows. Here are twenty big Predators moments from 2020.
1. Winter Classic
Despite an up-and-down start to the season, 2020 dawned with excitement for the Predators and their fans as the team took the ice against the Dallas Stars at the Cotton Bowl for the 2020 NHL Winter Classic. Less than three minutes into the game, Corey Perry’s right elbow to Ryan Ellis’s head resulted in a Perry ejection and a five-game suspension, while Ellis suffered a concussion and missed 20 games. Despite two unicorn-like power play goals by Matt Duchene and Dante Fabbro, the Predators eventually lost to the Stars 2-4 in a disappointing start to the year.
2. Coaching Changes
After that up-and-down first half of the season, GM David Poile shocked the Nashville sports community by announcing he was relieving Head Coach Peter Laviolette and Assistant Coach Kevin McCarthy of their duties on January 6. Despite being known for his audacious player moves, Poile had always remained measured and reticent about coaching changes in the past. While many were calling for a change in leadership, few believed it would actually happen, especially during the season. On January 7, John Hynes, former head coach of the New Jersey Devils, was named the new Head Coach of the Predators.
3. Poile Speaks His Mind
The January 7 press conference made waves in Nashville not just because of the new head coach announcement, but also because of the frank, pointed comments made by GM David Poile at the beginning of the presser. Poile made his frustration with most of the players very clear in his comments regarding Laviolette’s firing and the team’s lack of consistent performance. Poile was direct about his disappointment with the players, with the exception of captain Roman Josi, and clear that the fault for the team’s struggles were not to be laid at the feet of Laviolette and McCarthy. It was a surprisingly candid Poile.
4. Goalie Goal
In what may be the highlight of the year for Predators fans, Pekka Rinne sealed new head coach John Hynes’s first win with the rare and beautiful goalie goal against the Chicago Blackhawks on January 9. This was the hockey moment to play on repeat during the long, lonely hockey-less months. Chris Mason’s laugh, Rinne’s smile, and his teammates’ reactions make this moment of 2020 well worth remembering.
5. Forsberg’s Lacrosse Goal
Filip Forsberg began the 2019-20 season hot, but really made a statement with this magnificent lacrosse goal in the game against Edmonton on January 14. Forsberg also attempted two between-the-legs shots in this game. Unfortunately the Preds dropped this game to the Oilers 2-4.
6. A Season’s Snapshot in 60 Minutes
The Predators’ highlights and mistakes in the Washington Capitals game on January 29 served as an accurate microcosm of the season.
The highlights? A power-play goal, Tinordi’s first NHL score, another strong performance by the Smith-Bonino-Grimaldi line, and a shorthanded goal by Ryan Johansen. The mistakes? A misplayed puck by Juuse Saros led to an Alex Ovechkin goal, Nick Bonino fumbled the puck and scored for the Caps, and a penalty kill faceoff win quickly became a turnover and a goal for Washington. The abilities and errors from this game looked equally familiar.
7. Granlund’s Big Finish
If there was a moment that could compete with Pekka’s goal for the hockey highlight of the season, Mikael Granlund’s performance in the 2/27 game against the Calgary Flames is it. The Flames went ahead of the Predators with less than a minute left in the game, but Granlund wasn’t going to give up before the end…and I mean the very end. With less than a second on the clock, he found the back of the net to tie the game, and then threw the team on his back to score the game-winning goal in overtime for good measure.
8. Home and Away Against the Stars
2020 kicked off with Dallas, but these two games against the Stars on March 5 and 7 were as important in their own right. Juuse Saros started both games, a decision by head coach John Hynes that made it clear that heir apparent Saros had the coach’s confidence between the pipes. The Saturday 1-0 win not only saw a revenge goal by Ryan Ellis, but also moved the Predators into a Western Conference Wild Card spot.
9. Season suspended
On March 12 the NHL suspended the 2019-20 season due to concerns over the novel coronavirus.
10. Predators Open Mini Camp
After over four months off the ice, the Predators returned for a brief mini camp on July 13 prior to entering the NHL bubble for the resumption of the season. The team recalled 12 players from the AHL and OHL to join the roster on the ice, giving head coach John Hynes his first good look at some of the young talent at the team’s disposal.
11. Exhibition game versus Dallas
The fans got their first view of the Predators after four months off when they played an exhibition game in the Edmonton bubble against the 2020-villain Dallas Stars. There were questions about how the time off would affect the team—would they be in hockey-ready condition? Was the time beneficial for building relationships between Hynes and the players? Could the team build off of the momentum they had started to gather before the season suspended?
The exhibition game against Dallas indicated some positives going into the play-in round. Saros and Rinne took turns in net and stopped every shot they faced, the JoFA line was reunited, the team played a physical game, Viktor Arvidsson scored a power play goal, and Filip Forsberg served up a magnificent spinning assist for Arvidsson for a second score. This game exposed that Achilles heel of Predators fans everywhere: hope.
12. First Arizona goal in Game 1.
Nearly eight minutes into the first official game in the Edmonton bubble Arizona’s Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored the first goal of the game—and by “Ekman-Larsson scored the first goal” I really mean “Turris’s stick and Duchene’s back scored the first goal”. That goal was an allegory for the Predators’ season—a bad puck bounce resulting in a team that strained to mentally bounce back.
The Predators struggled with mental toughness and resilience all season, an issue that John Hynes identified early in his tenure and worked to address. This goal revealed a team that still couldn’t quickly bounce back from unfortunate physics. Despite a third period push, the Predators went on to lose to the Coyotes 4-3.
13. Eliminated in OT
On August 7 the Predators faced an elimination game in the play-in round. Down 0-2, the Predators began to claw their way back into the game with goals from Matt Duchene and Viktor Arvidsson. The Coyotes regained the lead in the third period, but in typical 2020 fashion, the unpredictable happened and Filip Forsberg tied the game up with less than a minute to play. Hope springs eternal! But in also-typical 2020 fashion, the bottom fell out as the Predators lost in OT and their season officially ended.
14. Off into the Sunset
After 16 seasons in the NHL, defender Dan Hamhuis announced his retirement from the NHL on August 13. Despite a challenging final season (you can view his player report card here) and no ice time in the play-in round, Hamhuis was a notable figure in Smashville. Drafted by the Preds in the first round of the 2001 NHL draft, Hamhuis also played for the Vancouver Canucks and Dallas Stars (we forgive him) before returning to Nashville to end his career.
15. And the Winner Is…Roman Josi
In another top contender for the best Predators moment in 2020, Roman Josi was awarded the Norris Trophy on September 21. Beating out the Washington Capitals’ John Carlson and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman, Josi was named the best defender in the league by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Josi’s play was the one consistent bright spot in the Predators’ otherwise inconsistent season. Smashville held a socially-distanced surprise celebration for the captain on September 23, henceforth known as Roman Josi Day in Nashville.
16. Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow
On October 7 Nashville bid farewell to both Nick Bonino and Kyle Turris. GM David Poile traded Nick Bonino and a second- and third-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Minnesota Wild for Luke Kunin and a fourth round pick. The same day, the Predators placed Kyle Turris on unconditional waivers in order to buy him out. The season was tumultuous for Turris and booming for Bonino, but both headed out of Smashville in October, much to the sorrow of many fans.
17. The Next Generation
On October 6 the Predators used their #11 pick in the NHL Draft to select goalie Iaroslav Askarov. Using their first pick on a goaltender was a choice that garnered heated discussion among Predators fans (even here at OTF). The Predators also gathered a trifecta of additional Lukes (forward Luke Evangelista, and defensemen Luke Prokop and Luke Reid), along with defender Adam Wilsby and forwards Chase McLane and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine.
18. Not Finished Yet
On December 22, Mikael Granlund fans in Nashville received an early Christmas present as the Predators re-signed Granny to a one-year, $3.7 million dollar contract. A solid financial move for the organization, bringing Granlund back also allows a chance for John Hynes to capitalize on Granlund’s skill set for a full season. Most of the Predators faithful were excited about the return of the Finnish center.
19. New Frenemies
Because of border issues, travel challenges, and COVID, the NHL created new divisions for the 2020-21 abbreviated season. This season’s Central Division, where the Predators remain, is made up of previous Central Division rivals the Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars, with the addition of the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets (formerly Metro division) and the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, and Tampa Bay Lightning (former Atlantic division teams)—though Detroit and Columbus have shared a division with the Preds in the past.
Upside? We won’t have to watch them face Nick Bonino as a Minnesota Wild. Downside? They still have to play a Dallas team fans still hate.
20. We’ll Like It, We’ll Love It…From Home For Now
COVID has affected nearly every aspect of 2020, and to close out the year the Predators organization acknowledged it would also affect games at Bridgestone Arena in early 2021. On December 30, the Predators announced they will begin the season without fans in attendance. Despite Metro Health Department approving a 15% capacity at Bridgestone, the organization has opted to begin play in a fan-less arena because of elevated COVID numbers in Middle Tennessee.
The Predators baby boom, Nashville Strong, Forsberg’s glorious mustache.
While some magical hockey memories were made in 2020, Predators players and fans are definitely ready to turn the calendar to 2021. With a new season beginning and puck drop on January 14, all eyes are looking ahead to a new year and a new season in Smashville.